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Emergence of the New Learner

While theories of learning styles and generational abilities are losing ground in the elearning community, many leaders in the field are talking about new learners and new learning environments. Changes in both availability and capabilities of technological applications and devices are altering the landscape, creating new approaches and resulting in different expectations.

Three featured keynote and plenary session speakers at last week's Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) Conference on Online Learning all addressed the changing characteristics of learners and the learning environment. Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project; Cable Green, Director of Global Learning for Creative Commons; and Howard Rheingold, author, innovator, and instructor at UC Berkley and Stanford all presented interesting data, experiences, and perspectives on the future of learning.

Characteristics of the New Learner

So, what does this “new learner” look like? What roles does the new learner have in an age when access to information is seemingly endless? The Sloan-C presentations describe the "new learner" as someone who is:

  • Creating and broadcasting content: Learners are not only consuming content, they are also creating it and making it available through blogs, wikis, and other presentations of their work that are available online in digital formats. Through social media and networks (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) they share their own content as well as that of others.
  • Connected and networked: Through broadband access that is becoming more ubiquitous, and increased use of social media platforms and mobile devices, students connect not only with each other and their instructors, but also with the world outside the classroom. They are members of multiple connected and networked communities, small and large, local and global.
  • Used to critique, need feedback: All of this connectivity and sharing of content brings with it new forms of criticism, through features such as blog comments and "like" buttons. The feedback, both positive and negative, can be constant and, according to Rainie, become an expectation of the new learner.

The New Learning Environment

The characteristics of new learners are changing in part due to the changes taking place in their learning environments. The Sloan-C speakers described the environment in which the new learner is gaining knowledge and skill as:

  • Peer-to-peer. Social learning is not a new concept, but it continues to gain attention in the development of learning activities and environments. Rheingold introduced the term Peeragogy (as an alternative to pedagogy and andragogy) and a whole set of related literacies and skills necessary for us to learn effectively with others. Among this list are: attention, critical consumption, participation, collaboration, and network awareness. Watch for Rheingold's new book, NetSmart: How to Thrive Online.
  • Collaborative. Collaboration among students and instructors is also not new, but collaboration among learning institutions is. Green provided the example of Open Education Resource University, where Empire State College recently joined 12 other institutions working together to provide free learning options worldwide and formal credit for learning achievement.
  • A process. Rainie presented a juxtaposition of a more traditional approach, in which learning is a transaction where "knowledge is objective" and "learners receive knowledge," and a process-oriented prospective in which "knowledge is subjective" and "learners create knowledge."

Challenges Ahead

How will educators move toward these new environments? Higher education institutions have many stakeholders involved in decisions about how formal learning opportunities are delivered and how student learning is assessed. Making changes can be a long process. Where do we start?

Moving beyond what we know: Rheingold suggests that a deprogramming of sorts is required. We are brought up, educationally speaking, sitting in neat rows and columns of chairs, listening to instructor-driven lectures, and completing multiple-choice exams at pre-determined intervals. Today's educators will need to take the lead in trying new approaches, evaluating the effects of changes in their online and on-ground classrooms, and sharing their recommendations with their peers.

Aggregating, filtering, and curating: With access to overwhelming amounts of information, we need to find, and refine, ways to sort through all of it, identifying what is valid, accurate, and relevant. It's more critical than ever to teach students, at all levels of education, that having open access to information comes with the need to assess and select what has value. This process will grow in importance as we rely more heavily on open content.

Providing digital access for all: While the Pew Research Center reports that a majority of teens and adults have access to broadband Internet connections, it's not 100% yet. There are also reports from Edutopia that the digital divide is still "a critical issue in education and beyond, and is even more complex than it was a decade ago." This is just one issue that will have to be dealt with in the movement toward more connected and networked students, and the desire to leverage more open educational resources in the future.

What does all of this mean for higher education institutions? Rainie introduced a new Pew Research survey that is currently underway. Watch for their report on the "Future of the University," which will present responses to questions about the adoption of new approaches and technologies, and the priorities and preferences of higher education administrators and faculty.

For more information…

This post offers just a brief glimpse at the ideas discussed during this event. There's so much more to explore, but these three presentations (more information linked below) are a great place to start.

Lee Rainie (@lrainie) The New Education Ecology 

Cable Green (@cgreen) The Obviousness of Open Policy

Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) My Explorations of Social Media and Social Media Literacies in Teaching and Learning